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Here's why getting rid of unenforceable racial housing covenants matters

Before Alison Knezevich’s story in The Sun on Sunday, most Rodgers Forge residents probably had no idea that the deeds on many of their houses contain covenants banning non-whites from living there. The rule is legally unenforceable, and we suspect title companies don’t highlight it among the piles of paperwork at closing. Real estate agents probably don’t mention it to prospective buyers. The neighborhood association website has loads of information about other covenants related to additions (no), awnings (dark green only), windows (six-over-six panes), lawn ornaments and landscaping (“sedate rather than garish”), and on and on. The forced segregation of the Forge’s early days doesn’t get a mention, but the homepage does have a picture of a rainbow-colored “all are welcome here” sign in someone’s yard.

Indeed, a vestigial bit of language in a document attached to a deed probably seems altogether irrelevant to life in 2017 in what is genuinely one of the friendliest, neighborliest neighborhoods around. For most, bees in the Tot Lot sandbox or the propriety of saving just-shoveled parking spaces after a snowstorm are probably more pressing issues.

Yet nearly 70 years after the Supreme Court ruled such covenants unenforceable, Rodgers Forge remains overwhelmingly segregated. The two census tracts that roughly cover the neighborhood are about 89 percent white, according to the 2010 census, and only slightly more diverse than they were 10 years before. In the same period, Baltimore County went from 74 percent white to 64 percent. Legally enforceable covenants aren’t keeping minorities out of Rodgers Forge, but something is.

It’s not that the neighborhood is somehow out of reach or undesirable. Housing prices are relatively affordable, especially given the value proposition of low Baltimore County taxes and good public schools. Crime is rare, and the location is excellent. And although Baltimore Magazine called it one of the region’s best-kept secrets a few years ago, it’s not some tiny, obscure enclave, either. Rodgers Forge has 1,800 houses and plenty of turnover as young families move in and out.

But in the unspoken racial geography that is Baltimore, there are white neighborhoods, and there are black neighborhoods, Jewish ones and (increasingly) Hispanic ones. People have continued to segregate themselves even as legal barriers fall away. Not only has that fostered a lack of cross-racial understanding but it has perpetuated economic inequality as some neighborhoods appreciate in value and some deteriorate.

The Rodgers Forge Neighborhood Association took a small but important step this week to change that. It voted to appropriate $2,000 to start investigating what it will take to remove the covenants, and it decided to include a section on its website explaining that the neighborhood today finds the language abhorrent and is trying to get rid of it.

How is not completely clear. Newer covenants in the neighborhood — ones that lack the racist language — include a specific procedure for changes, which requires the approval of just 50 percent of the neighborhood. But the ones with the offensive language include no mechanism for amendments. It’s likely, then, that they will be covered by a 2004 state law. It set the default level of community approval for removing such discriminatory covenants at 85 percent, rather than the common law requirement that, in absence of specific language for amendments, any changes to covenants require unanimous consent of the affected property owners. The 85 percent level was set to solve a problem in a North Baltimore neighborhood about a mile from Rodgers Forge where a lone holdout was preventing the removal of similar language. Sponsors didn’t want to make the threshold too low for fear of sparking opposition from those who might worry that it would set a precedent for making other sorts of changes to covenants easier.

But the requirement of demonstrating neighborhood consent — whether it’s at the 50 percent level of the newer Rodgers Forge covenants or the 85 percent specified in state law — is precisely what makes this effort worthwhile. It’s one thing for a neighborhood association to issue a statement of inclusivity. It’s another to make the effort to go door to door, block to block to collect signatures renouncing discrimination. That sends a more powerful and tangible positive message than some old, unenforceable covenants written by people who are likely long dead sent a negative one. We wish the Forge the best of luck in this effort and urge any other neighborhoods with such language attached to their deeds to follow its lead.

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